[This is an archived article]

The Impact of Family Involvement

Statistics show that family support for reading – including reading aloud to children – has a major impact on reading success. However, research has uncovered a variety of reasons why many families aren't as involved as they could be.

Studies of individual families show that what the family does is more important to student success than family income or education. This is true whether the family is rich or poor, whether the parents finished high school or not, or whether the child is in preschool or in the upper grades (Coleman 1966;Epstein 1991a; Stevenson & Baker 1987; de Kanter, Ginsburg, & Milne 1986; Henderson & Berla 1994; Keith & Keith 1993; Liontos 1992; Walberg, n.d.)

The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children (Anderson et al. 1985).

International comparisons show the high academic success of students from Asian countries, which many attribute to the priority their families give to education (Stevenson 1993).

If every parent of a child aged 1 through 9 spent one hour reading or working on schoolwork with his or her child five days a week, American parents would annually devote at least 8.7 billion hours to support their children's reading (U.S. Department of Education 1994a).

In money terms, if the children's teachers spent the same time one-on-one, the cost to American taxpayers would be approximately $230 billion more in 1991 – about the same as what the American public pays yearly for the entire K-12 public American education enterprise. In practice, however, only half of parents with children under age 9 say they read to them every day (Gorman 1993).

Family involvement is one of the best long-term investments a family can make.

The difference in lifetime earning between a student who did not graduate from high school and one who did is over $200,000. The difference for a student who received a bachelor's degree or more is almost $1 million (The U.S. Census Bureau 1994).

There is public support for greater family involvement in learning:

  • Forty percent of parents across the country believe that they are not devoting enough time to their children's education (Finney 1993).
  • Teachers ranked strengthening parents' roles in their children's learning as the issue that should receive the highest priority in public education policy over the next few years (Louis Harris and Associates 1993).
  • Among students aged 10 to 13, 72 percent said they would like to talk to their parents more about schoolwork. Forty-eight percent of older adolescents (14-17 years old) agreed (National Commission on Children 1991).
  • Eighty-nine percent of company executives identified the biggest obstacle to school reform as lack of parental involvement (Perry 1993).

But if family involvement is so important, why isn't more of it happening? Aspects of modern life stand in the way.

Time

With the rise in two-breadwinner families, one-parent families, and the need for family members to hold more than one job, families have many demands on their time. 66 percent of employed parents with children under 18 say they do not have enough time for their children (Families and Work Institute 1994).

For example, many children are left at home alone, unsupervised or watching television for hours a day. Working parents are often faced with trying to complete all household duties in the limited time available. Teachers also are strapped for time. Although some would like to make home visits to families or talk more with students' parents, many teachers are parents themselves and have families to attend to.

Uncertainty about what to do and their own importance

Many parents today are unsure how to help their children learn (National Commission on Children 1991). Some are simply not prepared to be parents. The number of teenage parents has risen dramatically in recent years (Snyder & Fromboluti 1993). Other parents may have had bad experiences with school themselves and are reluctant to return to school even as a parent, or they may feel intimidated and unsure about the value of their contributions compared with those of a teacher.

Yet many parents say they would be willing to spend more time on homework or other learning activities with their children if teachers gave them more guidance (Epstein 1987; Henderson, Marburger, & Ooms 1986).

But teachers also need guidance. Although teacher certification requirements in about half the states mention the importance of working with families, very few states require extensive coursework or in-service training in working with families ( Radcliffe, Malone, & Nathan 1994). Few teacher preparation programs address techniques for communicating with families, and many teachers and other school staff may simply not know how to go about involving parents more in their children's learning.

Cultural barriers

The families of the children being educated in America's schools today are extremely diverse. Many immigrant families do not speak or understand English. This language barrier may be a special problem for low-income families who have little or no education themselves. The 1980s saw the number of poor Hispanic and Asian immigrant children increase dramatically ( Morra 1994).

Families also have different views on schools, teaching, and their own role in their children's education. Teachers may be unable to communicate with non-English-speaking parents. Even those family members who speak English but have little education often have difficulty in communicating with schools because their life experiences and perspectives are so different (Comer 1988; Moles 1993).

Lack of a supportive environment

Nurturing families has not been a priority on the American agenda. More and more parents face the difficult task of raising their children alone. More children than at any time since 1965 live in poverty (Children's Defense Fund 1994).

Low-income parents have less contact with schools than do their better-off counterparts (Moles 1993). They need support from all sectors of the community if they are to become more involved in their children's education.

Schools need to establish clear school and district policies on family involvement and reach out to all parents on a continuing basis, providing personal contact, literature and classes on parenting, literacy training, and parental resource centers.

Religious and civic organizations need to encourage parents as they guide the growth of their children. Communities also must work with families to make the streets safe for children and provide constructive after-school and summer experiences.

Employers need to be supportive of their employees who are parents, allowing more flexibility in work schedules as well as more options for part-time employment.

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Endnotes

Endnotes

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Excerpted from: Strong Families, Strong Schools. Online book prepared by ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education. Based on Ballen, J., & Moles, O. (September, 1994). Strong Families, Strong Schools: Building Community Partnerships for Learning. National Family Initiative, U.S. Department of Education. Full text available at eric-web.tc.columbia.edu.

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